On Sphere

There are a lot of reasons I loved Sphere, mainly having to do with that it is nice to have a Science Fiction movie that doesn’t have an end goal of defeating aggressive, violent aliens. According to The New York Times review:

The crew is tough and unisex, ”Alien” style. The Top Secret mission is rich in techno-terror. And the tour guide is Michael Crichton, whose 1987 novel ”Sphere” told of trippy, mind-altering phenomena on the Pacific Ocean floor. In the end, the book proves uncharacteristically touchy-feely for Mr. Crichton, and not just because things with tentacles mean so much to its plot.

As directed with sustained tension by Barry Levinson and acted in no-nonsense style by a stellar cast, the elaborate film version of ”Sphere” sticks to a familiar sci-fi format while also venturing onto strange new ground. While this is no quick-witted treat on a par with Mr. Levinson’s ”Wag the Dog,” it’s a solid thriller with showy scientific overtones, the kind that mean a cast member will be explaining what a black hole is and how fast coral grows before the story is over. Each of the stars plays a crackerjack scientist, and it’s especially helpful to have Dustin Hoffman here in the role of Dr. Norman Goodman. Norman is a psychologist, and the movie definitely needs one.

Here’s why: the scientific team is summoned by a mysterious Government functionary named Barnes (Peter Coyote) for the purpose of a hush-hush investigation. On board are Harry Adams (Samuel L. Jackson), brilliant mathematician; Ted Fielding (Liev Schreiber), brash astrophysicist; and Beth Halperin, ace biochemist, played by Sharon Stone. Hey, it’s only a movie. And Ms. Stone walks the walk and talks the mumbo-jumbo as plausibly as the others do.

It seems that there is a sunken aircraft to be investigated, and that on the evidence of the armada of Government vessels assembled nearby, space aliens are a possibility. It also seems that these scientists, however clever, may be overmatched. The idea for summoning this particular team came from a report once written by Norman, who actually hasn’t a clue about handling alien invasions but didn’t want to pass up a lucrative job. So, according to the film, he drew heavy inspiration from Isaac Asimov and Rod Serling, though a real-life Norman would surely have lifted from Mr. Crichton, too.

Anyhow, down they go into the film’s substantial underwater sets, where most of the action is confined. And once they slip into diving gear, the scientists invade the mystery ship and make a startling discovery: nuts. Smoked nuts. Smoked nuts from Earth, in a tin-foil wrapper. It seems that the ship didn’t come from space, yet it’s been in the Pacific long enough to have a thick covering of slow-growing coral. Ready, class? The aircraft must have come from our own future.

But on board is the sphere in question, a huge, throbbing metallic object that definitely lacks a home-grown look. And the sphere has mysterious powers, which is where the story starts heading for the Twilight Zone. Nobody can determine what’s inside the sphere, but crew members who have contact with it begin behaving very oddly afterwards. Have they been body-snatched? Brainwashed? It’s time for Norman to start studying the behavior of all concerned.

Then the sphere turns chatty and starts sending sphere-mail to the ship’s computer. An early message reads ”I am happy,” but you don’t have to be Dr. Norman Goodman to sense that the sphere will soon be saying, ”I will kill you all.” Matters grow ever more curious from this point on.

Boasting of a breakthrough ”bigger than Copernicus” and touting the sphere as ”the greatest gift in the history of mankind,” the story hardly lives up to its own hype. But as faithfully adapted by Kurt Wimmer, with an overlong but effectively brusque screenplay by Stephen Hauser and Paul Attanasio, it does hold the attention. Mr. Levinson directs efficiently on this grand scale, making good use of special-effects jellyfish and other scarily picturesque phenomena. Queen Latifah plays the backup crew member who picks the wrong moment to go on jellyfish patrol.

Mr. Hoffman’s cool authority is well used here, as are Mr. Jackson’s muscular intensity and discreetly mocking air. As the character most susceptible to the sphere’s strange gravity, he keeps the viewer guessing long after head-scratching disbelief is in order. Ms. Stone glowers effectively and sends a few sparks in the direction of Mr. Hoffman’s character, since the two are said to have had an unhappy romance in the past, but not much is made of this. ”Sphere” is much too preoccupied with its scientific mystery to come up for air.


4 thoughts on “On Sphere

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